Luang Prabang is the most visited part of Laos. The old part of this town of slightly over 55,000 permanent residents was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995 and with improvements in transport links to Luang Prabang it has became Laos first and only mainstream tourist destination recently featuring in a range of international publications recommended as ‘The’ place to visit.
This is a dramatic change from the way Luang Prabang used to be when travelling there meant an extremely slow uncomfortable journey by road or boat or a fast dangerous one in a flimsy boat with an oversized engine negotiating the treacherous waterways of Northern Laos. You can now fly to Luang Prabang from Bangkok or Hanoi or travel there by bus on a fairly good road.
History of Luang Prabang
Archaeological evidence suggests that Luang Prabang has been inhabited since around 8,000 BC, however, the town only began to thrive after being conquered in 689 AD by Kung Lo, a king from the Tai ethnic group which had spread south from their native homeland in China as the Han Chinese began to gain dominance over the other ethnic groups in China. From that point until the creation of the first kingdom of Laos in the 14th Century, control of Luang Prabang passed between a number of different groups including the khmu (who still inhabit much of Northern Laos) and the Khmer Empire of Cambodia.
In 1353 Luang Prabang, then known as Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, began the first capital of Laos and the home of its royal family. The administrative capital of Laos was moved to Vientiane, the current capital city of Laos, in 1560.
The first Laotian state collapsed in 1707 over a dispute over succession to the monarchy and the country became split with Luang Prabang becoming the capital city again, but of a much smaller state covering the modern province of Luang Prabang. The country was reunified under French rule with the King of Luang Prabang, under the patronage of the French Government, becoming recognised as the King of Laos in it entirety.
After a period of relative peace under French rule World War II precipitated a struggle for control of Luang Prabang between Thailand, France, China and Japan with each country ruling the city for a period of a few month before being displaced by another. Laotian independence was not fully achieved until after the Vietnam war when the Vietnamese communists assisted the Pathet Lao Communist party in taking control of Luang Prabang and dissolving the country’s monarchy.
Tourism in Laos developed very slowly thereafter as the new Communist regime gradually dropped its policy of self imposed isolation and allowed foreign visitors to start visiting Luang Prabang again in the late 1980s.
Attractions in Luang Prabang
There are lots of places to visit and things to do in Luang Prabang, particularly in the part of the town which is near to the point where the Mekong and Khan rivers meet. You can simply wander around and find things of interest to see without the need for any kind of guidebook. If you do read a guidebook, the attractions which they are most likely to focus on are as follows:
- Phou Si: Hill in the town centre which a popular viewpoint, particularly at sunrise and sunset. There is an entrance fee and a lot of steps to climb.
- Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum: Formerly a royal place, now a museum.
- Wat Xieng Thong: The oldest temple in the town and perhaps the most interesting.
- Kuang Si Falls: Waterfall some 29 km to the south west of Luang Prabang. There are lots of leeches in the water and the surrounding area. Wear trousers and substantial footwear. If a leech attaches itself to you use the flame of a lighter to make the leech detach itself rather trying to pull it off.
- Tat Sae Waterfalls: More waterfalls, but less leeches, 15.7 km to the south east of Luang Prabang.
- Pak Ou Caves: Caves 30 km to the north east of Luang Prabang. The caves are accessible from the river and most visitors combine a visit to the caves with a boat trip.
Travel to Luang Prabang
As well as flying to Luang Prabang from regional airports such as Bangkok, Vientiane, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Kuala Lumpur there are overland routes to Luang Prabang via bus and minivan. Travelling overland to Luang Prabang takes a lot longer than flying, but it is a lot cheaper and a much interesting way to travel as you get to see a lot of Laos than you would from a plane. If you have the time flying to Luang Prabang is not necessarily the best way to get there; go by bus and experience the benefits of ‘slow travel‘:
- Thailand to Luang Prabang: There are bus services from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. The journey by bus from Chiang Mai takes 20 hours.
- Vietnam to Luang Prabang: There are daily direct bus services to Luang Prabang departing from Hanoi and from Sapa. The journey by bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang takes 25 hours 30 minutes. The journey by bus from Sapa to Luang Prabang takes 18 hours.
- Cambodia to Luang Prabang: There are direct bus services from Siem Reap (near Angkhor Wat) to Luang Prabang. The journey by bus from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang takes 32 hours 30 minutes.
Location of Luang Prabang
- Luang Prabang is 340 km to the north of Vientiane.